Canada’s historic pavilion of art reopens in Venice

Canada's Pavilion in Venice. Photo: Andrea Pertoldeo

Sixty years ago Canada opened a small building in Venice and took a big step into the wider world.

This small jewel sits inside what is known as the Giardini, a parkland that is at the centre of the visual art world every two years.

The Venice Biennale is considered by many the foremost exhibition of contemporary art as it has been since the very first one in 1895. Canada’s pavilion sits between the German and British pavilions and near the French. In all, 30 nations have buildings on the site.

This is the big leagues in other words.

But the pavilion had suffered the ravages of time and was badly in need of a $3 million restoration that has just been completed.

The renewed building was officially opened Thursday morning in a small ceremony at the site which is a mere 15 minute walk from the famous Piazza San Marco and the canals of the old city of Venice. If you go, you will find a special exhibition about the building’s history. The pavilion normally hosts an architectural exhibition in even years such as 2018 but, because of the restoration, Canada’s official show called UNCEDED: Voices of the Land, led by architect Douglas Cardinal, is at the Arsenale di Venezia, the other main venue of the Biennale.

The history of the pavilion is fascinating. It came into existence in the 1950s through the efforts of consecutive directors of the National Gallery of Canada with the aid of the federal Department of External Affairs and its minister, Lester B. Pearson. This was at the same time as Pearson was proposing the concept of peacekeeping as a way to end a war in the Middle East for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

In its own way, the Canada Pavilion was an important piece of diplomacy, said Anne Eschapasse, the deputy director of exhibitions and outreach for the gallery. She is responsible for the visual art exhibitions in the pavilion.

“It was an act of cultural diplomacy by a young nation with a strong desire to be present on the world stage. It was quite visionary to identify the Biennale as a platform to deliver this message.” Along with the Vimy monument in France and apart from embassies, she said, the pavilion is one of the very few structures outside of the country that is a statement of Canada on the world stage.

“This pavilion is an amazing platform for Canadian artists and to be able to showcase them on a global stage is truly exceptional,”Eschapasse said.

Part of that message was about reconciliation between Canada and Italy in the years after the Second World War. Many Canadians had fought and died in the Italian campaign. After the hostilities concluded, Italy was saddled with a bill of war reparations.

Canada decided to forego the debt in exchange for projects that would be built in Italy. One was the Canadian Embassy in Rome. Another was the Canadian Pavilion in Venice. Canada had been invited to participate in the Biennale in 1952 and in 1954 had been offered a space in the Giardini for a building of its own.

The building project was given the green light and a prominent Italian architectural collective called BBPR was given the job of designing it.  The architect on the project was Enrico Peressutti. The firm is venerated in Italy, something that was key to the restoration of the pavilion, Eschapasse said.

The interior of the pavilion in the Giardini di Castello, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice is full of glass and light and a tree. Photo: Andrea Pertoldeo

“It’s quite a privilege to have a pavilion in the Giardini,” she said. “No more are being built there. And the pavilions in the Giardini have all been produced by the big names in contemporary architecture.”

By 2008, this small jewel of a building was desperate need of a makeover. This was not a great time to be asking for money for such a building as the global recession was devastating budgets worldwide.

But Karen Colby-Stothart, who was the gallery’s deputy director in charge of exhibitions at the time, picked up the challenge and started a slow journey.  Ten years later and now the head of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, she is celebrating. 

But none of this could have been done without the help of a private citizen and a team of Italian and Canadian officials.

The private citizen is Ottawa native Reesa Greenberg. Not only is she a generous philanthropist, she is also a respected art historian. She covered the $3 million cost of the restoration of the pavilion.

“For a public building to be fully restored at the initiative of a private citizen is quite amazing,” said Colby-Stothart. “It had a lot of personal meaning for her. This little piece of history would have been lost without Reesa.

Colby-Stothart began work on the project when she was deputy director of the gallery responsible for exhibition programs.

At the time, “Canada’s pavilion had become dangerously dilapidated. It was a tragedy,”Colby-Stothart said. And perhaps a bit of an embarrassment for the country as the Italians, who care deeply about their own architectural heritage, revered the BBPR firm and considered the pavilion tobe an important building in a sea of important buildings.

“The firm is revered in Italy. They originally designed the pavilion as a response to the existing pavilions nearby.” The British pavilion is in the imperial style, she said and the German pavilion was built by the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, who opened it in 1936.

“BBPR was an avant-garde, modern firm. They integrated nature into the building with trees growing through it. There is lots of light. It’s a great breath of fresh air.”

The pavilion had been returned by Foreign Affairs to the gallery in 2008.

“When the gallery got on the site and started looking around they realized it was time to address issues with the building. It was very deteriorated,” she said. It was also decided to develop a dependable source of  revenue for the Biennale program, but to accomplish that the building needed to be restored. 

The process that followed was a real navigation through the bureaucracies of two countries. The pavilion has heritage status in Canada and Italy and the Biennale itself is involved in protecting the integrity of the Giardini which is a World Heritage Site.

It took several years to get organized. About four years ago they found an architect — Alberico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, who is the well-respected son of one of the original members of BBPR,

He became very personally moved by the site and by the fact Canada wanted to restore the building. With him on board the project got more traction in Italy.”

So much so, in fact, that the Biennale agreed to foot the bill to rejuvenate the landscape around the pavilion and hired the legendary landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who is 97 years young and her associate Bryce Gauthier of Enns Gauthier Landscape Architects to do the work.  

The result, Colby-Stothart said, is “a beautifully restored building” and grounds that she believes will work well for the artists and for those who come to see this piece of Canada over the next 50 years.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.